Locals at a Vietnam market. Photo courtesy of Lucas Jans.
Looking to travel to Vietnam? Vietnam expert and travel blogger of Discount Travel Blogger, Lyndsay Cabildo, shares her knowledge of the country, based on an 18-month backpacking trip through Southeast Asia in 2008 that led to her falling in love with Vietnam — especially how affordable it was — and living there for nine months. In 2011, she returned to the destination to backpack solo and teach English for three months. Cabildo shares advice and recommendations below on how to travel beyond the guidebook through this fascinating country.
1. For those wanting to have a Vietnam experience not typically found in guidebooks, a recommendation is Son Doong Cave, touted as the largest cave in the world. It might be a little expensive, but it’s truly an amazing cave. For a beach bum like me, Nha Trang was my favorite beach in Vietnam back in 2008; however, it has become crowded over time. Yet, there is Phu Quoc Island, a small island off the coast from Southern Vietnam, which might be a little pricey than the usual budget backpacker but it is beautiful and cleaner than most beaches they have along the backpacker trail. For those on a budget, there are cheaper areas, but these will not be as clean and modern as the touristy Vung Tau in the south east coastal area.
2. For those wanting to experience local culture in Vietnam, you should head up north, to Cat Ba Island, Sapa Bay and nearby provinces where tribes are still living in tact and practicing their beliefs. Cat Ba Island became popular when they made it a National Park, but it’s great as they regulate crowds by only giving visitors six days maximum length of stay. The combination of beautiful scenery and its authentic tribal character make it a must-have experience.
Bahn xeo. Photo courtesy of stu_spivack.
3. No trip to Vietnam would be complete without savoring the local food culture. For someone wanting a traditional meal, it’s important to remember that each region has its own distinct taste according to its geographical location and survival needs of locals in the area. Vietnam is globally known for its Banh Mi and Pho, yet every regions boasts their specialties. With many of these foreigners may question their integrity due to its cooking method or ingredients.That being said, it’s important to understand the Third World is always focused on survival, and unless one has lived how these peoples’ lives they shouldn’t judge from the other side of the world or through their cameras.
That being said, there are a number of dishes accommodating to majority of plates, for example, Banh Xeo, crispy Vietnamese pancakes stuffed with shrimp, pork and beans. For more information, check out Mui Ne’s Specialty – Banh Xeo.
4. For those wanting to partake in some adventure, Vietnam offers a nationwide motorbike tour and in some cases inter-country ones which are really hard to find in other Southeast Asian countries. Another idea is to try the traditional junk boats on Cat Ba Island offering snorkeling, island hopping and sometimes diving (these typically include local Vietnamese food and accommodation).
5. For backpackers and extreme budget travelers heading to Vietnam, you’ll love this country; however, because locals know it’s cheap for you they tend to mark up prices to still be reasonable you but more ‘comfortable’ for them, if you know what I mean. The trick is to find out where the locals go and look at the price tags. Or if they don’t have them — most local markets don’t have price stickers — learning basic local phrases can help you understand bargaining in local numbers. If you know the basic language, you’re less likely to get ripped off.
6. For those wanting to assimilate into local culture, remember the Vietnamese doesn’t appear to be overly friendly, but it doesn’t mean they are not. Due to their strong language intonations, they may even sometimes sound angry even if they’re happy. Also, if you are a visitor of any country, do not get offended easily if you have not researched the local culture and don’t understand it. Many times locals are just simply trying to make a living or just simply existing.
Sapa, Vietnam. Photo courtesy of Nathan O’Nions.
7. For a drink paired with a beautiful view in Vietnam, the beach areas have tons of restaurants and even resorts that offer use of swimming pool, pool table, wifi and sun beds if you get a drink or food from them. Drinks are typically reasonably priced for what you are getting.
For budget travelers, you can always grab your drinks from the convenience stores, market or, if you wish to help locals, you can buy it from sellers that walk around by the beach. WARNING: Some beach sellers may get annoying and sit beside you, waiting for you to finish your drink and hopefully buy another.
8. If you want to party like a local, there are a ton of options for night life in Vietnam. In Ho Chi Minh City the well known Pham Ngu Lao Street is their equivalent to Khaosan Road in Bangkok. For a fancier night out and dress code kind of clubbing, head out to the District 1 area which takes about 45 minutes from Pham Ngu Lao Street depending on the traffic, which gets worse during happy hour time.
9. For those wanting to take a day or weekend trip while in Vietnam, it’s easy to do it all and still stay on a budget because of their Open Bus Tour system. With this you can buy one nationwide ticket from north to south or vice versa, allowing you to hop on and off at every tourist region at your own pace. Just remember to drop by the local tourist or tour company office a day before your desired date of getting on the ‘sleeper bus’ to head to your next region. All these go for about $60 (may be cheaper or more expensive depending on the company). I recommend The Sinh Tourist — formerly Sinh Cafe, but there are currently million of Sinh Cafe agencies that scam people using the same name. Please remember the name: The Sinh Tourist Office located at Pham Ngu Lao Street in Ho Chi Minh City.
10. For solo travelers heading to Vietnam, remember to always stay ahead of your game. I know it’s fun just to go with the flow; however, you can still stay smart and research. Read more and talk to other travelers, read review and learn from others’ good and bad experiences with tour companies, hotels and restaurants. You can always go with the flow and have fun if your well-equipped with the necessary knowledge.
By that, I mean you’ll avoid the bus company or bus time that drops you off at the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night to catch the connecting bus ride in the next five hours. What happens if you’re a female traveling solo and you have no other fellow backpackers traveling with you? Lucky if there are other travelers going where you’re going, at least you have company. Knowledge is safety.
Contributed by freelancer, Lyndsay Cabildo.